In the aftermath of the June 2023 revolt by the private military company Wagner, questions arose regarding the future of Wagner’s sprawling presence in Africa, where it had served as an unofficial, but recognized, instrument of Russian power projection. Wagner and its leadership appear to have emerged from the abortive insurrection with their African operation intact. Moreover, with Russia positioning itself to expand its footprint on the African continent, interest in the Wagner product is likely to grow in the coming months and years.
The Wagner Group traces its roots to the 2014 Ukrainian crisis. The Russian government, constrained by constitutional restrictions over the deployment of Russian armed forces outside the territory of the Russian Federation without legislative approval, formed several paramilitary formations composed of military “volunteers,” which were dispatched first to Crimea and then to the Donbas in eastern Ukraine.
One of these formations was headed by a retired Russian special forces officer named Dmitri Utkhin, who used the call sign “Wagner.” On May 1, 2014, Utkhin joined forces with an entrepreneur, Yevgeny Prigozhin, to form a private military company known as “The Wagner Group,” or simply Wagner. Initially Wagner’s remit was to provide training and combat support to ethnic Russian militias seeking separation from Ukraine. Later, as the Ukraine conflict quieted down, Wagner contracted its services to foreign governments that were seeking military assistance from Russia. By using Wagner, the Russian government was able to provide the requested support without the messy political machinations of first seeking legislative approval from the Russian Duma, or parliament.
This relationship of convenience started with the Russian deployment in Syria in 2015, and later expanded into Africa as Wagner forces deployed to Libya, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Chad, Sudan, Mali and elsewhere. On the eve of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Wagner had more than 3,000 fighters operating in Africa, where they gained a reputation for brutal efficiency.
The contractual relationship between Russia and Wagner appears to be one where the Russian government provides money for salaries and bonuses of Wagner employees, while the Russian Ministry of Defense provides weapons and logistical support. As a private military contractor, however, Wagner is free to pursue independent business opportunities in Africa, and it has engaged in several lucrative side businesses involving, among other things, oil and gas extraction and diamond and gold mining. By some accounts, Wagner has, since its founding, earned more than $20 billion in income from its various economic activities and has been labeled by the US as a “significant transnational criminal organization.”
The Russian invasion of Ukraine provided Wagner with an additional business opportunity. In May 2022, the Russian government signed a $940 million contract with Wagner for specialized military support in the Donbas. Wagner’s operations there expanded from a 500-man operation into one involving 20,000-30,000 contracted fighters, including, at one point, thousands of convicts who signed up under a deal where they would receive a full pardon in exchange for six months of combat duty in Ukraine.
During this time, Wagner continued its operations in Syria and Africa, expanding the scope and scale of its operations in the Central African Republic and Mali, while maintaining a presence in Libya, Chad and Sudan. Wagner has been accused of playing a role in the 2021 coup in Burkina Faso. The size of the Wagner presence in Africa grew to more than 5,000, in large part because of the Mali deployment, believed to consist of some 2,000 personnel. Because of the complexity of the Ukraine operation, Wagner’s African contingent operated as a separate entity.
On Jun. 23-24, Yevgeny Prigozhin, together with Dmitri Utkhin, led a revolt targeted at the Russian Ministry of Defense. At issue was the status of the Wagner Group. One of the core components of the Wagner compact was immunity of Wagner personnel from Russian laws prohibiting the operation of private military companies on Russian soil. Fulfilling this task was not a problem so long as the Donbas territories of Luhansk and Donetsk remained nominally independent. However, following the annexation by Russia of Luhansk, Donetsk and two other Ukrainian provinces (Kherson and Zaporizhzhia) in September 2022, the legal shield no longer applied. Prigozhin was put on notice that when the Wagner contract expired in May 2023, Wagner employees serving in the Donbas would have to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense.
Prigozhin and many of the Wagner command staff refused to do this, leading to a bitter war of words where Prigozhin accused Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov of incompetence and corruption, which in turn led to Prigozhin and Utkhin leading 8,000 Wagner troops on a short-lived rebellion that took them to the suburbs of Moscow, before a resolution was agreed.
Continuity of Service
The consequences of the Wagner revolt were terminal for its Donbas operation — Wagner forces there were given a choice to disband, sign a contract with the Ministry of Defense or go into exile in Belarus. All heavy weapons that Wagner had been operating, including tanks and artillery pieces, were turned over to the Ministry of Defense. Prigozhin, Utkhin and the Wagner employees directly involved in the revolt were given pardons for their participation in the insurrection. Moreover, Prigozhin and the 35 senior Wagner employees who comprise the “commanders’ council” met with Putin in the Kremlin less than a week after the revolt ended, where the future of Wagner was discussed.
In effect, Wagner landed on its feet. Part of the post-revolt arrangement had Wagner transferring its base of operations out of the Donbas and into the territory of Belarus, whose President Alexander Lukashenko had helped negotiate an end to the insurrection. In mid-July, Prigozhin visited the Belarus camp, where he and Utkhin addressed a crowd of 8,000 Wagner fighters. Prigozhin informed the Wagner employees that their future tasks included training the armed forces of Belarus — and continuing their operations in Africa.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has reached out to the African countries where Wagner had a presence and notified them that the services provided by Wagner would be continued without interruption. Driving this point home was the fact that, during the Russian-African summit convened in St. Petersburg in late July, where Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized Moscow’s willingness to provide security assistance to African states that requested it, Prigozhin held what amounted to a shadow summit, meeting with many of the African leaders and their representatives to discuss the future role of Wagner on the African continent.
One of the key components of the Wagner compact with its employees is a guarantee of employment. As such, Wagner has closed its recruiting offices in Russia on the assumption that its current force structure of 13,000 employees is sufficient to meet both its training mission in Belarus and its operational missions in Africa. One thing, however, seems certain — as far as both the Russian government and Yevgeny Prigozhin are concerned, Wagner is an ongoing business, and given the unrest in Africa, the prospects for that business look good.
Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer whose service over a 20-plus-year career included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control agreements, serving on the staff of US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and later as a chief weapons inspector with the UN in Iraq from 1991-98. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.